Q&A

Coming soon: Meet Patrick Wall, our reporter in Newark

PHOTO: Janet Upadhye/DNAinfo
Patrick reporting in the Bronx in 2013.

Elizabeth Green, Chalkbeat’s CEO and editor-in-chief, introduces Chalkbeat Newark’s senior reporter.

In 2011, I spent a lot of late nights reporting in Newark.

I was on assignment for a national magazine to write about the immediate aftermath of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift. As it turned out, the story never ran. But even if it had, it still wouldn’t have included half of what I learned in Newark.

Seven years later, I couldn’t be more excited to launch Chalkbeat coverage in Newark. We’re committed to doing a different kind of journalism, writing not just about but also for the community whose story we’re telling.

In Newark, we’re starting out as a year-long pilot launching March 1, with hopes to continue our work longer. We accelerated this pilot with a preview story — because this moment in time is once again significant for Newark schools, and our reporter just couldn’t wait to get started.

That reporter is the brilliant and dedicated Patrick Wall, who is in the process of setting down his own roots in Newark. Here he is, in conversation with me:

You started your career focused on one thing — teaching — and not too long after that pivoted to another — journalism. What drew you to education and teaching, and what inspired you to make the switch to writing about education rather than practicing it?

As I was graduating college I joined Teach For America, the organization that provides (brief) training to people who commit to teaching in high-needs schools. I’d actually majored in film, but I was drawn to the idea of trying to help give young people some of the same opportunities that I felt I’d been afforded through education. I strongly believed (and still do) that public education is central to everything America claims to stand for — democracy, opportunity, equality — and that the condition of our schools is a measure of our commitment to those ideals.

But I soon found that believing strongly in education and being a strong educator are two very different things. First at a charter school in Gary, Indiana, then at a district school on Chicago’s South Side, I experienced firsthand the extraordinary demands put on teachers, the limited support they receive, and how they’re forced to contend with the by-products of poverty that students carry into the classroom.

Eventually I decided I wasn’t cut out to be a teacher. As I was figuring out what to do next, I briefly ran an after-school program at a public school in a wealthy suburb in my native Ohio. The contrast between what I saw there — the cutting-edge facilities, the calm and orderly atmosphere, the students and staff who seemed to have everything they needed to function at a high level — and the inner-city school where I’d recently taught was shocking to me. I decided I wanted to understand that inequity, and tell others about it, which led me to journalism.

Welcome to Chalkbeat
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization covering the story of education in America. Our newest bureau is here in Newark. To get the latest on your local schools, and what changes here mean for schools across the U.S., sign up for our newsletters here. And tell us what stories you think we should be covering by filling out this brief survey here.

Your first journalism job was at DNAinfo, the late, great neighborhood news source, where you covered the South Bronx. You hadn’t ever lived in the South Bronx, and you were relatively new to New York City at that point. How did you get to know a new neighborhood with a lot of history — and where most of the residents didn’t look like you?

I tried to attend every community board meeting, precinct meeting, church festival, and school hearing that I could. I didn’t have a car, so I took the bus or walked everywhere — real “shoe-leather reporting.”

I was always aware of my identity as a white, middle-class professional in a predominantly black and Hispanic  community that’s part of the country’s poorest Congressional district. That meant constantly checking my assumptions and having a lot of humility. I was an outsider, so it was incumbent upon me to learn the local context, understand what issues mattered to the local community, and spot and try to correct my own blind spots.

If that sounds like a lot of work, it was also probably the most fun I’ve ever had in a job. I got to spend time with immigrant parents who’d banded together to improve their local schools, a food-justice activist who wanted to turn a school bus into a rolling farmers market, and a local rapper who performed in a psychedelic Darth Vader mask.

After working at DNAinfo, you came to Chalkbeat, where you covered New York City schools. What’s one of the most interesting stories you covered while on the New York City school beat?

Probably the series of stories about a low-performing high school in Canarsie, Brooklyn. The city had just launched a massive turnaround program that the mayor promised would transform long-struggling schools. We wanted to show what that looked like at the classroom level.

What I found were dedicated teachers and school leaders trying to move the school forward. But it sometimes felt like as they scrambled to meet an ever-growing list of demands from above, they were trying to improve everything at once but actually changing very little. All the while, their students — many of them brilliant, perceptive, and hilarious — nonetheless showed up to class tired, hungry, stressed, and overwhelmed.

The story left me daunted by the challenges facing high-poverty schools, but inspired by the people inside them.

You’re now planning to move to Newark, New Jersey, and jump onto the Newark beat. As soon as we mentioned the possibility of opening reporting in Newark, you made your passion for the city clear. What makes Newark’s education story so compelling to you?

Newark’s schools, like the city itself, have such a rich history. They’ve been subject to massive demographic changes, occasional mismanagement, and sustained efforts to improve them by civic groups and philanthropies, parents and educators, and, most recently, a hard-charging cadre of self-described reformers.

Now, the city is beginning a pivotal new chapter as it regains control of the schools after a 22-year state takeover. I’m eager to report on how the school board uses its new authority, how the charter sector continues to evolve, and how Newark’s families keep pushing for the best education possible for their children.

I couldn’t imagine a more exciting place to report on public education right now.

How can readers reach you if they want to get to know you?

My email is pwall@chalkbeat.org, and you can follow me on Twitter at @patrick_wall. Plus get all the latest updates from Chalkbeat Newark by signing up here.

I’m eager for your thoughts on stories I should write, questions I can explore, schools I should visit, and local spots I must try!

Inside Chalkbeat

I’m Chalkbeat’s new audience engagement editor. Here’s how I think about community and impact.

PHOTO: Sam Hodgson / Voice of San Diego
A throwback to 2014; Catherine Green co-hosting a live podcast recording for Voice of San Diego

Technically my first day at Chalkbeat was January 7, but I hope you’ll forgive the delay in saying hello. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been meeting people left and right, bookmarking community organizations and movers-and-shakers in the seven locations where we operate, and getting up to speed on our audience engagement strategies. Now that I can catch my breath, I wanted to take a moment to share my own perspective on engagement and what I’m hoping to do at Chalkbeat.

A lot has changed since I started working in engagement six years ago, but plenty remains the same. Comment sections are still prone to devolving into petty fighting without rigorous moderation. News organizations are still sorting out which traffic metrics they pay attention to, and which ones define success. The role of “engagement editor” in newsrooms, unlike “City Hall reporter” or “editor in chief,” can still resemble an amorphous blob, containing as much or as little as an outlet cares to hear from its audience.

Chalkbeat lands on the upper end of the spectrum, and its engagement-centric approach is part of what drew me to work here. I first learned about Chalkbeat back in 2013, when I was engagement editor at Voice of San Diego.

What immediately stood out: Chalkbeat’s MORI system, which remains the most thoughtful approach I’ve seen for measuring impact in the communities a news outlet covers. This isn’t the case everywhere, but to me, and most importantly to Chalkbeat, engagement and impact are intertwined; journalists’ work doesn’t yield impact if readers aren’t part of the conversation. While growing our audience is important (have you told a friend about Chalkbeat yet? We’d appreciate the help!), and will be a significant part of my job, our bureaus are motivated by doing work that matters, that informs debate and spurs action that results in better schools — not necessarily work that will go viral.

Since then, Chalkbeat has grown to seven bureaus with national coverage on top of that, and there are plans to expand to even more cities around the country in the future. Though my career path had carried me away from mission-driven nonprofit newsrooms, I found myself checking back in on Chalkbeat.

I spent 2018 as a senior editor at The New Republic, focused on engagement; before that, I was assignment editor and managing editor for the website of The Atlantic. I’d spent three years at legacy institutions, and though I’d known going into those experiences that the audiences would be bigger, and the metaphorical walls surrounding the newsrooms higher, than they had been in the nonprofit world, I don’t think I appreciated how different the mindsets around engagement — and impact — would be.

In the last few weeks, I’ve heard about several Chalkbeat stories that came directly from community engagement. One in particular stands out in my mind: the story of Javion, a 16-year-old in Chicago’s public school system who reads at a second-grade level. Our reporter Adeshina Emmanuel learned about Javion’s difficulties during last year’s listening tour, a series of in-person events where Chalkbeat staff aimed to empower people in the community to share their own stories.

Here was the engagement I cared about, where journalists sought to report with and for communities, not just “on” them; here was the commitment to driving impact by working with our readers, aiming for results above and beyond a CNN chyron name-dropping our cover story or Donald Trump tweet-ranting against our work. Here was journalism as public service.

So what will I be doing at Chalkbeat? I’ll be making it easier for us to reach more people in our communities, in person and online. I’ll be fine-tuning our social media practices, establishing and maintaining partnerships with other media outlets and community organizations, and helping our bureaus pull off events that amplify diverse voices. Generally, I’ll be managing how we talk to and hear from our audience — which includes you.

As I get started, I’d love to hear from you. What do you want to see more of from Chalkbeat? What are you hoping to get out of the newsletters? If you live near one of our bureau locations (especially Indianapolis, where I’m currently based), I’d love your suggestions for potential partners: Who’s doing good work in your city to improve education and build a stronger sense of community? Let’s chat: cgreen@chalkbeat.org

growth plans

Now hiring: Chalkbeat Newark is set to expand

PHOTO: Bene Cipolla/Chalkbeat
A Chalkbeat Newark focus group in 2018. The nonprofit news organization will add a new reporter in June.

Chalkbeat Newark has some breaking news of our own to report: We’re expanding.

Less than a year after Chalkbeat opened a new bureau dedicated to New Jersey’s largest school system, we’re adding another reporter in June. We’re expanding through Report for America, an innovative program that places beginning journalists in communities that need — and deserve — more on-the-ground reporting, and we especially welcome applicants from Newark.

“We are thrilled to have support to add more reporting capacity to our team in Newark,” said Elizabeth Green, Chalkbeat’s co-founder, CEO, and editor-in-chief. The bureau is the organization’s seventh; Chalkbeat also has reporters in Chicago, Colorado, Detroit, Indiana, New York, and Tennessee, and is continuing to grow.

“We launched coverage in Newark at the request of a diverse group of community members,” Green continued. “Since then, more and more members of the community have told us they value the work we are doing: holding officials accountable, keeping the conversation honest, and shedding light on the consequences of major decisions that affect public education.”

The new reporter will bolster Chalkbeat’s coverage at a pivotal moment for Newark, as the district completes its transition from decades of state oversight back to local control, and as a new superintendent begins to make his mark on the 36,000-student school system.

The reporter will be partly funded by Report for America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening local news coverage. The group, which is modeled on Americorps, is helping this year to place 60 journalists in newsrooms across the country — from Puerto Rico to Wisconsin to California and now New Jersey. Report for America will split the cost of the journalist with Chalkbeat and local donors.

Report for America was founded by two media veterans, Steven Waldman and Charles Sennott, who worried that the downsizing of newsrooms across the country threatens democracy. The nonprofit organization receives funding from a number of donors, including the Ford Foundation, Facebook, and Google.

Newsrooms that host Report for America-funded journalists have complete control over their work; donors play no part in the editorial process.

“Like all support to Chalkbeat, this gift comes with no strings attached,” Green said. “Our ultimate responsibility is always to tell the truth.”

Journalists interested in covering Newark schools (or any of the other RFA-sponsored roles) have until Feb. 8 to apply for the position. Along with their normal reporting duties, Report for America hires must also participate in a community-service project, such as mentoring student journalists.

We especially welcome Newark-based reporters to apply. If you know someone who’s right for the job, please encourage them to submit their information.